Football Features

Luis Suárez, Atlético Madrid and the power of revenge

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 18:24, 2 February 2021

For the six seasons prior to 2020/21, Luis Suárez terrorised La Liga defences with Barcelona.

The Uruguayan bagged an incredible 147 goals in 191 league games for the Blaugrana, with only Leo Messi outscoring him over that timeframe (with 201 in 208). He was an absolute force of nature, winning four La Ligas out of the six he competed for as well as three Copas del Rey and even a Champions League as well.

All told Suárez scored 198 goals in 283 games for Barcelona, which puts him third all-time among the club’s most prolific goalscorers. He is unquestionably one of the two greatest strikers in the entire history of the club, with only Samuel Eto’o able to rival him for the top spot.

But for all his goalscoring prowess, he had become a problem. Now approaching his mid-30s, Suárez’s lack of movement, energy and dynamism became a detriment to Barcelona’s overall team-play.

Obviously Suárez could still finish, but he couldn’t do anything else. His performances in games where any sort of physicality was required were shockingly poor, to say nothing of his abysmal showings in the Champions League capitulations against Roma and Liverpool.

Moving on from a player as epochal as Suárez is never easy, and true enough Barcelona made a hideous mess of it. They waited a year (or two) too many to make the decision and when they finally did, they did it so abruptly and rudely that it annoyed star man Messi.

But even that would have been all right had they shuttled him off to Juventus or some other club outside of La Liga. Somewhere that would force him to learn a new culture and language at 33 years old, to relocate far from his dream club and make him start again.

Instead, they sold him to Atlético Madrid. For free.

Revenge is a huge motivator in life, the desire to “get someone back” clenches fists, grits teeth and tightens the sinews in the neck. It sharpens the focus to the point where it can slice through Vibranium.

What’s especially absurd about this is that Barcelona have seen the power of revenge many times. Like in 1994 when Michael Laudrup, fresh from winning four straight titles with Barcelona, felt slighted by Johann Cruyff, so departed for Real Madrid where he proceeded to drive Los Blancos to break Barcelona’s title streak in two and utterly “end” Cruyff’s Dream Team.

Or in 2004, when Real Madrid consented to selling Samuel Eto’o to Barcelona. The Cameroonian striker had been at Mallorca and Los Blancos owned his transfer rights and, thinking they had no need of him due to having a side with Ronaldo, Raul and Michael Owen, allowed Eto’o to join Barcelona. What followed was Eto’o adding a goalscoring edge to Ronaldinho’s magic and turning Barcelona into the best side in the world, winning back-to-back titles and a Champions League. Even after Madrid won their title back, Eto’o’s last season in Spain saw him lead the line for what many regard as the greatest team of all-time, winning Spanish football’s first-ever Treble with Barcelona.

Then in 2013, David Villa had just won La Liga with Barcelona, helping the Blaugrana rack up 100 points. It was Villa’s second title in three years in Catalunya (and his injury in the second season was a huge reason they didn’t win three in a row). He wanted to leave to play regularly and rather than moving him somewhere, Barcelona sold him to Atleti for the laughably low €5.1m. Villa then scored 13 goals in 36 Liga games and helped Atleti completely shake up the landscape of Spanish football by winning La Liga.

Barcelona have twice felt the sting of revenge, and once wielded its power themselves (albeit indirectly as Eto’o was firmly a Mallorca man when the move happened). They know what a vengeful forward can do, and still they treated Suárez like mud, they cast him aside with nary a thought and essentially communicated that they thought so little of him they were willing to let him join a rival. For free.

They literally could not have sold him to a worse club. Even Real Madrid would have been a better destination. Revenge would have still been a huge motivator at the Santiago Bernabeu, as it was for Laudrup in 1994/95, but Real Madrid are an old team who already have a no. 9 that the manager and owner love and cherish. Could Suárez form a partnership with Karim Benzema? Of course, but it would come at the cost of dynamism and athleticism much as it did at Barcelona, slowing the attack to a crawl.

What makes the Atleti move so bad is that Diego Simeone’s mentality is a perfect match with Suárez’s and, more, Atleti had a Suárez-shaped hole at the head of their team. Yes, a 33-year-old Suárez has limited movement and can do little beyond score, but that is all Atlético Madrid need him to do. They have a young, fast, hard-working side that was simply missing the killer instinct Suárez possesses in droves.

And so, with laughable predictability, Suárez has been brilliant for Atlético Madrid.

Is he still slow? Sure, he’s not quick, but he looks fitter and leaner than he has in years. The benefits of working with a world-class coach for the first time since 2017 are quite evident in the way Suárez moves about the field.

The other stuff, technique, vision and skill… that was never a problem and is even less of one now he’s playing with a bunch of lightning bolts. Joao Felix is a phenomenal player who has the skill to feed Suárez (as Messi did) but unlike the Argentine, Joao Felix can stretch the field and make runs for the Uruguayan. As can Angel Correa. And Marcos Llorente. And Thomas Lemar.

All Suárez has to do in red and white is hang about at the top end of the pitch and bang in the goals. And it’s what he’s been doing. He currently sits top of the Pichichi standings with 14 goals – more than even his great friend Messi.

Suárez’s goalscoring in 2020/21 runs the gamut from tap-ins to beautifully aimed strikes to belting free-kicks. We’re getting the full repertoire from El Pistolero because Atleti have given him a simple role and he is a driven man motivated by what can only be a pulsating desire for revenge on Barcelona for discarding him so callously.

And he’s taking that revenge in some style. Suárez’s 14 goals have fired Atleti to the top of La Liga having played the most cohesive and coherent football of any side in Spain’s top flight. They’re 10 points ahead of Barcelona with a game in-hand, meaning that their advantage is conceivably as large as 13 points.

Even if we allow that Barcelona and Madrid beat them (very big “ifs”) before season’s end, Atleti would still need to lose three other games, and their challengers win every single match, for their lead to be hauled back. And given Suárez’s goalscoring has turned Atleti from a superb defensive side to a superb defensive side that has the goal power to grind out win after win to stay atop the table, there’s little chance of them throwing this away even with though that’s basically the club philosophy at this point.

It’s 2021 and Luis Suárez is still terrorising defences in La Liga and is on course to win the title, only this time it’s for Atlético Madrid; and all because Barcelona didn’t understand or respect the power of revenge.